For many of the estimated 3.5 billion fans who follow football globally, the World Cup is unmatched by any other sporting event. Fandom is weaker within the United States, but soccer -- as Americans call it -- still draws its fair share of eyeballs. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll estimated one in three will watch the action in Brazil, regardless of how well the U.S. men's team performs.
So will the World Cup give the sport a permanent boost in America?
The spotlight effect
According to the research firm Nielsen, viewership of Major League Soccer -- the U.S.'s preeminent professional league -- may benefit from the event.
During 2010's tournament, an average MLS game drew more than 140,000 viewers. That figure subsequently fell by nearly 15% the following year. Assuming trends hold, MLS per game numbers should jet past 170,000 by the end of 2014. "The uptick is perhaps a bellwether that 'the beautiful game' has finally found a foothold among sports fans here in the States," Nielsen writes.
Logically, this -- let's call it a spotlight effect -- makes sense. The World Cup injects football into the national consciousness, and now that the U.S. men's team is competitive, it's easier to do so. After failing to qualify for nine consecutive tournaments between 1954 and 1986, the Americans have reached at least the Round of 16 in three of their past five tries.
A primetime boost in 2014
And thanks to prime time scheduling, this year could be record-setting in the U.S. The 2014 tournament will be broadcast on Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC largely between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern time.
Because Brazil's geography places it just one hour ahead of New York, even the earliest matches begin at noon Eastern. That's an enormous contrast to past World Cups in South Africa, Germany, South Korea, and Japan, which required fans to watch some matches in the wee hours of the morning and others late at night.
"[This year] there is a casual audience watching us, who wouldn't watch it normally," famed football commentator Ian Darke recently told USA Today. "They are the people who are going to drive the figures up to the record ratings we hope to get for this tournament."
ESPN predicts a "significant" ratings spike compared to the last World Cup, which reached 111.6 million U.S. viewers, according to Nielsen. The 2006 World Cup, by comparison, drew 91.4 million domestic viewers.
The big question
But even if more Americans watch, will they become permanent fans of the sport? Another poll, conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, suggests the answer to this question may be "No."
Their results reveal that although close to 50% of U.S. citizens believe football will be more popular in 10 years, actual fandom is stagnant. The Post explains: "There has been little change in the number who consider themselves fans ... over the past two decades. Some 28% identify themselves as fans today, compared with 31% on the eve of the 1994 World Cup."
In other words, even if tournament viewership doubles in the U.S. this year, it's possible no new fans will be created. Healthy MLS TV numbers aside, it appears many domestic World Cup viewers have had a watch-it-and-forget-it mentality.
How can this problem be fixed?
Two potential solutions come to mind.
First, a World Cup victory for the U.S. men's team might work. There's reason to believe that an outright win would legitimize the American brand of football. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight places the probability of an outright win in 2014 at just 0.4% -- 19th in the field of 32 -- but that could always improve in the future. The New York Times recently reported American fans believe they have the best chance to win, so that's a start.
Second, and less dependent on a miracle, an improved MLS could capture more fans. The league is generally considered to be outside of the world's top five in terms of quality, but it's making progress.
Beginning with David Beckham's move to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, the MLS has become an increasingly attractive destination for international stars. France's Thierry Henry, Ireland's Robbie Keane, and most recently Spain's David Villa have followed, and standouts like Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic are rumored to be considering a move in the next few years. By giving players the opportunity to live in the U.S., the MLS has a major recruitment advantage to its European counterparts.
The bottom line
I don't have a crystal ball, and neither does the MLS. But if the value of the league's recently signed eight-year, $720 million deal with ESPN, Univision, and Fox is any indication, the TV bosses are betting on a boost.
For that to happen, though, more American viewers must be converted into bona fide football fans. If the U.S. men's team can hoist the World Cup trophy, or at least show signs of progress, that may do the trick. Otherwise, an improved MLS is a more realistic solution to the problem.
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